The truth about Managing by fear


From a long time ago, in some organizations, management is ruling by a culture of fear. Nowadays that word is still used very much and almost never management by feartoo quickly. As far as I am concerned, the media cannot write enough about it.

What is happening here? Well, you can recognize a culture of fear when there is either an unsafe atmosphere in the workplace or when there is room for intimidation, hidden agendas and abuse of power.

Press involved

In the event of an escalation, the culture of fear will even reach the press. But it started way before a simple press message. What are the characteristics of managing by fear? You can read all about that in this article!

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Firstly I will describe the definition and meaning of a culture of fear:

In a culture of fear there is usually management behavior in which fear is used as a motive and motivator to enforce obedience (or even better: slavery). Yes, I would almost call it slavery, a modern version of it. It is an unfortunate situation, in which every employee is or has to be completely subservient. Management will always home in on (alleged) weaknesses.

Imagine a boss asks you which parts of work you like best and the tasks that you would rather skip. Beware of telling him what you do not like, as he is after your weaknesses!

Abuse of power

The main characteristic of the culture of fear is that there is emotional power abuseblackmailing by those in power, often the manager or the supervisor. As you can see from the above example management will be active to discover what you like least.

There is an abuse of power when people use their position to belittle, humiliate, gag, and compel others to obedience. There is also an abuse of power when too much is covered up and whistleblowers know they would be punished! The resulting outcome will be disastrous. Here are some symptoms.

Sickness and absenteeism

Bad leadership can lead to high absenteeism rates. Employees get sick and symptoms such as being over-strained or having burnout are widely known. What has to happen? In any case, it is clear that trust management needs to be worked on. However, there is no pill for sale or a method.

It concerns the undercurrent within the organizations, but note that 90% of the iceberg is underwater. This also applies here. That is the gut feeling that prevails in the organization but does not appear above the table. The trick is to get this gut feeling on the table and that will only succeed if sufficient safety is offered.

Responding to fears

Responding to fear occurs through the relationship of dependence that exists fear to loose jobbetween employee and employer. It is not without reason that there is the proverb “whose bread one eats, whose word one speaks”.

The employee depends on the management or the management team because otherwise the continuity of income would be compromised. In a culture of fear, this is often abused. It addresses the fear of job loss to force employees to walk the beaten track.

Management by fear

As you have seen, the culture of fear is complicated and very different for each situation. Therefore, I am going to mention a number of characteristics. You may recognize some:

Unsafe and suspicious

There is insufficient trust within the organization and there is insecurity within the organization or the team. Even the coaches and advisers that the advancing a friendorganization uses appear to be in no way objective, being a friend of the management. In other words: nepotism.

This simply means that stories the employees tell the coach in confidence are fed back to the management. This even applies to the internal confidential adviser who no longer feels frank and free in the role of confidentiality.

Uncertainty and hidden agendas

The culture of fear is often ruled by ambiguity and politics. Employees do not know where they stand: they have no idea where the management wants to go with the organization or they notice that the management talks differently. In addition, the management uses hidden agendas. A striking example was witnessed when vacancies were placed during a reorganization when it was already decided in advance who would be appointed. Stupid thought, to let your staff know!

The exit department is growing

people getting firedIn the culture of fear, the outplacement and exit department is growing. Employees are suddenly (as a battle with clear skies) negatively assessed while they have been employed for years and have never experienced a bad assessment before. Employees who have been in good faith for years are just fired and disappear from the workplace. Those who stay behind see it and know that this can also happen to them. Therefore these people keep quiet.

Relegation or demotion

Managers are suddenly removed from their managerial position. Assessments are performed on suddenly adapted performance criteria, then showing that people are not capable of the job. However, nobody understands the reason on the work floor. And that’s the thing, nobody is to understand.

The managers come and go

The umpteenth interim manager is appointed but can disappear with the same speed for inexplicable reasons. Some might be employed under false pretenses, some are to be the fall guy for a corporate mishap without them knowing.

No transparency

Employees have the feeling and idea that the organization is not doing well financially and they also receive signals related to that. However: the real story is not shared but is limited to the boardroom.


Change processes are initiated because the organization must suddenly be changing decisionsmore customer-oriented, more efficient, more effective, etc. (just imagine) while there is no support for it. Or seemingly for no reason at all. Sometimes it stops just like that. Then there is another new idea. And on and on it goes, there will always be some upheaval.

In my opinion the management team does not know what they are doing anymore, they have totally lost it.

Top-down decisions

In the culture of fear, decisions are made top-down. You may have your own opinion, provided you agree with the manager. Communication is one-sided, the involvement you experience in the workplace mainly consists of “nodding yes and meaning no”. After all, management does not tolerate any contradiction.

Bullying or intrigue

The culture of fear can also create an atmosphere of bullying and intrigue. Employees can be belittled, ignored or avoided, blackmailed emotionally by the manager, etc.

What can be done about it?

change your careerA very good question: what can be done about a culture of fear? The answer is: Yes, there is something you can do on the condition that management or leadership is also willing to do something about it. This is something that you will have to find out yourself. By testing the waters or by having a businesslike discussion with management.

Is management unwilling?

But if they are unwilling, then every trajectory is doomed to failure. In that case, as an individual employee you still have some options. For example, to see what possibilities there are for you outside the department or the organization. How about career guidance? Or a trajectory to become more resilient to intrigue by your manager? 

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2 thoughts on “The truth about Managing by fear”

  1. Nice post, Jerry. There seems to be a lot of pressure to perform these days. Perhaps more than ever. It seems more stick and not so much of the carrot! I think you can sometimes get on the ‘good side’ of the boss if you have built up a good rapport with them and this may influence their decisions but often times its all about the bottom line. So it is good to look at alternative sources of income as you have done. 

    • If you happened to encounter a really good boss (in 15-20% of the cases), then you are very lucky and you will be ok. For the other 80% it will mean fighting for your position and if that does not work, you should get out asap. Never let your health get adversely affected by bad working situations! In fact, everybody should take care of an escape route as I have indicated.


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